Minor League Baseball survives uncertainty and change in 2021 return
Minor League Baseball’s 2021 season comes to a close this weekend.
Two teams that draw many Delaware fans did not earn post-season bids, but hope to come back even stronger on the field and off it next season after rebounding from the pandemic-canceled season of 2020.
Delaware Public Media contributor Mark Fowser has more.
When the Wilmington Blue Rocks celebrated a Carolina League Championship in 2019, little did the team and its fans know that would be the final out for more than a year-and-a-half.
While 2020 brought no live baseball due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it did bring significant change for the team. The Rocks ended a long affiliation with the Kansas City Royals to become a Washington Nationals affiliate, in a new league with new opponents.
Also, Vince Bulik became Wilmington's new General Manager after being sidelined by a team in Scranton - also due to COVID.
Teams got the go-ahead to play ball in 2021. But, many questions remained.
"With us working very hard and putting a staff together all the way up until April, it made it very challenging to reach out to groups and get groups to even think about coming to the ballpark," Bulik said.
"Our sponsors were perfect. They were great this year. Most of them understood the challenges that we were up against. They were behind us 100%." - Wilm. Blue Rocks GM Vince Bulik
Full capacity at Frawley stadium is about 6,500. Public Health restrictions at the time would cap capacity at about 2,100 fans per game. Blocks of seats had to be roped off, and only small groups could gather in the suites.
According to Bulik, the past off-season was spent communicating with groups that traditionally enjoyed a Blue Rocks outing, a small but loyal base of season-ticket holders, as well as businesses and sponsors.
"Our sponsors were perfect. They were great this year," Bulik said. "Most of them understood the challenges that we were up against. They were behind us 100-percent. We had a lot of great sponsors that were with us in 2020 and stayed on board and helped us get through a very rough time and helped us even a little bit more going into 2021."
Like the Blue Rocks, the Delmarva Shorebirds also dealt with reduced capacity and much uncertainty heading into 2021. General Manager Chris Bitters, in his 15th season, said the team draws about 30-percent of its fans from Delaware.
"There were times when we couldn't have full houses obviously in the ballpark, but once we got through that and hit our stride during the months of June, July and early August, attendance was strong," Bitters said.
The Shorebirds also took advantage of the break from baseball action in 2020 to set the stage for what they hoped would be a successful start to 2021.
"In 2020, we had to focus on how do we virtually keep fans engaged, so we did a lot of that whether it was Facebook Live events or Zoom events, other virtual events with virtual 5-Ks to raise money for local charities that were struggling through COVID," Bitters said.
Players would prove to be another challenge. There would be frequent screening and testing. Bulik said the players could not arrive at the clubhouse any more than five hours before a game. At times, three buses instead of one were used for road trips.
It also would be impossible to carry out the traditional practice of finding local families to host players for the season.
"It would be too much of a challenge - it was too much of a challenge to ask anybody to take on the responsibility of a player, knowing where the players are going, knowing where the families are going," Bulik said. "Between the Nationals and ourselves, we got hotel rooms. We would work with the local hotels and try to get the best deals possible. You would have players that would potentially room together to get through the season and cut the finances down."
As a live entertainment venue in Maryland, the Shorebirds qualified for a state grant program and were awarded more than $244,000 to help offset lost revenues, as they were preparing to open up and play again at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium.
"We just want the community to stay safe, and do what we need to do to just get life back to normal." Delmarva ShoreBirds GM Chris Bitters
"We're very appreciative that they provided us with a grant that provides some flexibility in being able to open up safely and provide things that allow for safe operation of the facility and the things we have to do with the players to ensure their safety -screening staff before they came in, screening players, all of the things that went into opening under a completely different set-up," Bitters said.
Despite the challenges, optimism abounds among the ownership groups and front offices of these two teams.
"We just want the community to stay safe, and do what we need to do to just get life back to normal," Bitters added.
And, as the Blue Rocks prepare to celebrate their 30th anniversary season in 2022, with a ballpark in the midst of a growing Wilmington Riverfront, Bulik said the team looks forward to welcoming more fans for affordable family fun.
"I look forward to 2022, to be honest with you. There are a lot of great things that are going to happen here."